Now that Kirby Smart has been officially announced as the next head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, it's only right and natural that Georgia fans are welcoming him back into the Bulldog fold with warm and welcoming arms. Unless a coach carries some kind of baggage, or something truly unusual has happened during the hiring process (glances at Will Muschamp), every new head coach gets a "honeymoon" period with their new school. During this honeymoon time, everybody is optimistic, hopeful for the future, and is willing to forgive a few missteps early on in the process.
If there's one thing that we've learned over the last few years, though, it's that Georgia fans (and the current administration) aren't particularly gifted with an overabundance of patience with losing, or with hearing excuses for those losses. So Kirby Smart has some goodwill right off the bat in Athens... but how long will it last?
Well, the first thing that Kirby could do to prolong his "grace period" is to keep all of the top recruits in Georgia's 2016 recruiting class (and win over the ones that have yet to commit). Jacob Eason, in particular, is one name that even UGA fans who don't particularly follow recruiting (like me) are acutely aware of, and he will undoubtedly be one of Smart's first targets. Eason has been committed to UGA for more than a year, and was scheduled to enroll in Athens in January. With the coaching change, however, he's seems to have opened his recruiting process back up, and is rumored to be considering following the former UGA coach down to Miami, or even to shack up with the Sunshine State Saurians in Gainesville.
If Smart (and whoever he chooses as his offensive coordinator) can convince Jacob Eason to remain a Bulldog, that will go a long way towards building hope for the future (even if Eason has a relatively moribund freshman season, as Aaron Murray and Matthew Stafford did). In addition, UGA was heading towards having a top 5 recruiting class next February, and if Smart can keep the Dawgs in that range by holding onto existing committed recruits (and perhaps even bringing in a couple more), that'll be huge, as well.
So, let's say that Kirby Smart does just that, and UGA has a top-5 recruiting class even after the recruiting services have dinged all the kids that signed with us simply because they signed with Georgia. (Remember, after all, that Eason was the #1 QB in the country, and somehow has magically been demoted to the #2 QB recruit since he committed to us.) What do the Bulldogs have to do in Kirby's first season to ensure that the phrase "Kirby Smart hot seat" doesn't become just as popular a search term as it perennially became for our former head coach?
Obviously, "win every game" is one answer. But let's be honest; that's a completely unrealistic goal. Smart will be replacing a majority of the members of the coaching staff, and though his defense will undoubtedly be very similar to the system that Jeremy Pruitt installed this year, there will still be changes and adjustments that have to be made and to which the new players will need to get accustomed. More notably, though, is on offense. The Dawgs will be losing WR Malcolm Mitchell, TE Jay Rome, RB Keith Marshall (not that we played him, anyway), and 3 offensive lineman (John Theus, Hunter Long, and Kolton Houston). And everybody actually hopes we'll have a new QB, though Greyson Lambert will still be on the roster. And Nick Chubb will almost certainly not be at 100% for the first game of the season. (Will he still play? Probably, but if he's at 100% physically, it will be a miracle. And then there's the mental/psychological aspect of getting used to "running on the edge" again after a major knee injury. But I'm digressing...) Even if we bring in the best offensive mind in the country, our offense is still going to have quite a bit of rebuilding to do.
But perhaps most importantly of all: Georgia's 2016 schedule will not be as pillowy-soft as the 2015 schedule was. Given what we know, let's take an exceptionally early look at next season's prospects:
- UNC (@ Georgia Dome) - Given the momentum that Larry Fedora's Tarheels have, and how strongly they rebounded after their opening day embarrassment, it would take a minor miracle to win this game. If Kirby's Dawgs somehow manage to pull the upset here, it could, counter-intuitively, shorten his potential honeymoon, since everybody will be picking UGA to once again be a "great team," when we still might not yet be at that level. I'm counting this one as a loss.
- Nicholls State - If this isn't an easy early-season warm-up, the catcalls could already be... uh, calling. But it should be an easy win.
- @Missouri - Mizzou will be starting their season with a new head coach, as well. The Tigers chose to promote their DC to the head position, though, so one would think there would be less of a transition period here. Mizzou's offense was horrible, of course, so they might be looking for a new OC. Of course, so was ours, and so will we. This game is a toss-up, with a slight lean to Mizzou for playing at home.
- @Ole Miss - You can try to talk yourself into believing that we might have a chance to win this game if "this" happens and if "that" happens... but it would be a lot of "if's." Given the absence of any actual evidence saying we can compete at Ole Miss' level, I'm saying this game is a definite loss.
- Tennessee - Butch Jones' crew just couldn't get it done against the best teams they played this year, though they were tantalizingly close in every game they lost. If they could have made one single defensive stand, they'd have been playing in Atlanta instead of the Gators. Joshua Dobbs is back next year, too. This game is probably a loss.
- @South Carolina - Big, dumb, Will Muschamp football: At least it's not happening in Athens! This is a win/win.
- Vanderbilt - Derek Mason claims he's been making progress... but Vanderbilt is still Vanderbilt. This is a win.
- Florida (@JAX) - The Jim McElwain express just got started rolling this year, and Will Grier, at a minimum, should be available again by this point in the season for the Gators, if not some freshman QB phenom from Washington state. That ain't good (loss).
- @Kentucky - Mark Stoops has the Wildcats heading in the right direction, and Lexington is a tricky place to play. I probably should call this a toss-up, but I'm penciling it in as a win.
- Auburn - Once the Tiglesmen get rolling with their shiny new Faton Bauta* in Gus Malzahn's system, I'm sure they'll look like an unstoppable machine by this point in the season. Still, I'm going to call this a toss-up.
- UL-Lafayette - Our now-tradtional late season tune up for the Techies. Except that this team doesn't run the option. Also, they're usually about as good as Georgia Southern, if not better. Still, this had better be a win.
- Georgia Tech - Is Tech still running the option? Do we still have a defense that can stop the option? Well, chalk this one up as a win, then.
* - No, Bauta hasn't announced that he's going to Auburn, and there's no actual reason to think he will (yet). But I'm going with the established meme until proven otherwise.
So there we go. I don't think I was overly pessimistic, given the transition we'll be seeing and the players we'll have to replace. As has become common for us, it also looks like the season is relatively front-loaded, which isn't good with our youth on offense and our best player (Chubb) probably still working his way back at the beginning of the season. (I also didn't touch at all on all the defensive play-makers that we'll be losing, but I'm assuming that Coach Smart and his to-be-named DC will be able to coach up that side of the ball pretty well.) That looks to me like a 1-4 or a 2-3 start to the season, with a rally to finish somewhere between 6-6 and 8-4.
To be honest, I think most reasonable fans are expecting there to be a "transition" season with Coach Smart. Virtually every coach encounters this. Nick Saban even went 7-6 in his first season at Alabama, which included a loss to UL-Monroe. But the key for Kirby, I think, will be how we look in the games we win, and how competitive we are in the games we lose. Do we have a "hobnail boot" play to beat somebody, like we did in 2001, and is Eason chucking it all over the field like a pro? Or do we get blown off the field by the "better" teams we play, like Ole Miss, Florida, and UNC, with Greyson Lambert still quarterbacking the team? That will determine whether the 2016 offseason is dominated by grumbling or by hopeful optimism.
Despite all my ****ing and moaning about Greg McGarity and his handling of the coaching change, I'm still a Georgia fan, dammit, and I'm supporting my Dawgs. For all my bitching, I'm going to be in my usual seat in section 121 once the 2016 season starts. I'm going to be cheering my head off for the Dawgs, and I'm going to be ecstatic as hell if they beat the odds and have a championship season next year. But if they don't... it'll be interesting to see how long the honeymoon lasts. If I were a betting man (and I am), I'd guess it lasts through the second game of the 2017 season (that would be UGA vs. Notre Dame in South Bend, IN). But we'll see, I suppose. What do you think?